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Making the Link, Breaking the Link

John Swift

The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007, by Alvin Jackson, Oxford University Press, 488 pp, ISBN: 978-0199675371

Professor Jackson’s purpose in this book is to compare and combine the histories of the Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Scottish unions in respect of their origins, longevity and constituent elements. While he deals in some detail with the events of 1707 and 1801, his main focus is on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period critical to the evolution of both unions. His interest throughout is less in the making and unmaking of links than in their longevity: why the forming of England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707 is still with us, and why the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland lasted as long as it did. Unlike some other writers on these islands, he does not focus exclusively on England but gives more or less equal treatment to the three units involved.

Jackson’s study is partly based on original research and partly on an analysis of previous writers, both professional historians and scholars of other disciplines. He points out that while early modernist historians are interested in the internal dynamics of the three kingdoms, late modernists are preoccupied by the separate nationalisms of Ireland and Scotland and by the phenomenon of British retreat. Many of the latest accounts of Scotland are more concerned with the development of Scots nationalist politics than with Scottish unionism; the most important scholar of modern Scottish unionism, David Torrance, is not a professional historian. He also notes that contemporary chroniclers and historians were, if not shock troops, then key auxiliaries in the political debates, as in Ireland Jonah Barrington, Bryce, Swift McNeill and TM Healy, who took the field against Ingram, Lecky and Dicey. These debates were always highly charged with passion and outrage, especially regarding corruption, military domination, national stereotyping and economic inequality. In sum, both unions have always been interpreted polemically.

Overall, this is a distinguished analysis, subtle, balanced and insightful. The compare and contrast approach works well; similarities and differences are examined meticulously and used to explain, illuminate and contextualise each other. The historiographical range on diverse periods and issues is impressive. The bibliography, of almost forty pages, could serve as a comprehensive guide to primary and secondary printed sources for modern Irish and Scottish history. By way of valuable contrast with earlier writing on the two unions, easy answers are avoided; one union was not necessarily fated to fail, the other was not inevitably condemned to succeed.

A main theme in this tightly organised and closely argued study is why the union with Scotland was a relative success and that with Ireland failed. Scots nationalists may of course dispute the word “success” but Jackson is surely right in claiming that any political endeavour that lasts more three hundred years must be accounted relatively successful. The referendum in Scotland next autumn will indicate if the union is still fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.

The reasons for the failure of the Anglo-Irish union revolve around the two perennials of modern Irish history, religion and land. The common Protestantism of England and Scotland, though different in form, was more conducive to closer integration than was the religious opposition that persisted as Catholicism continued to hold the allegiance of a majority in Ireland. The rights of Scots Presbyterians were secured after 1707; Irish Catholics, before 1801 at least half-promised a fuller emancipation, had reason to feel not only disillusioned but betrayed, in the aftermath. To the extent that the state created in 1707, and the sense of identity of its people were largely defined by Protestantism and by opposition to Roman Catholicism, the difficulties for Anglo-Irish union, a century later, were always going to be of a different order of magnitude. The abstract unity of a Kingdom of Great Britain and an Ireland largely populated by a “Catholic other” was never less than highly artificial.

On the question of the respective treatments of confessional differences, the “remorseless Protestant vision” of Lord Clare is contrasted in a rather facile manner with the “more daring and imaginative statesmanship” of Pitt and Dundas. I would have liked to have seen more evidence that serious efforts were made by both to persuade their truculent monarch, the “terrified Ascendancy”, the Scots Lord Chancellor, Loughsborough, and their parliamentary colleagues of the necessity and value of what they were advocating in respect of Catholic Emancipation. After all, accommodation with the Kirk in 1707 had not been easy either.

As regards land, the Cromwellian and Williamite confiscations in Ireland were on a scale totally different from the anti-Jacobite expropriations in Scotland. And because pre-union Scotland was more fully sovereign and less subservient to England than pre-union Ireland, the old order there was less disrupted, and the traditions and identity of the weaker party were more respected in the outcome. Moreover, even if they were not particularly loved, the clan chiefs who survived in Scotland were regarded as broadly native and not imposed. By contrast, discrimination and dispossession were enforced against more than 75 per cent of the Irish population, and their distance from their new local potentates was infinitely greater. Dundas was right to question the sustainability of an independent parliament in a country where three-quarters of the population were sacrificed continuously to the “whims, prejudices or opinions” of the other quarter.

Professor Jackson gives adequate space and attention to the views of the liberal unionists, and especially to Lecky and Dicey. The unionism of both was more balanced than is often imagined. Lecky’s view was that it “would be idle to dispute the essentially corrupt character by which the union was carried”. Dicey took strong exception to the common and self-regarding English analysis that “justice and wisdom and statesmanship ... will not bear their proper fruits on Irish soil, because [our] prudence and benevolence are baulked of their legitimate reward by the innate perversity and folly of Irish nature”. In his view, union with Scotland had worked because the two units were more nearly equal and because the terms agreed were informed by generously strategic English thinking which protected the central institutions and traditions of the Scottish nation; these factors were, he felt, absent in Ireland.

Other factors mentioned which contributed objectively to the difference in the longevity of the two unions were historic memory (there was no equivalent in Scotland of Cromwell's massacres at Drogheda and Wexford or of the ferocity of his mass imprisonments, expropriations and transportations); the Famine (perhaps the major turning point, since it demonstrated brutally that, in Jackson’s words, the union was unable or unwilling to save the lives or advance the interests of its Irish citizens); and the failure of Gladstone’s Home Rule efforts.

Jackson deals comprehensively and fairly, as far as I can judge, with the “parcel of rogues” argument in relation to Scotland’s union and with the parallel “perjury and fraud” charge in Ireland. My secondary school history book in the 1950s featured John O’Hagan's verses prominently, and its text on how the union came about in Ireland was centred almost exclusively on the same interpretation. Corruption existed ‑ indeed it was a normal way of managing parliaments in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but a convincing case is made here that to see either union largely in terms of corruption is inadequate and incomplete. In any event, the argument can also be reversed: if, as an undersecretary in Dublin Castle observed in 1798, union had necessarily to be “written up, spoken up, intrigued up, drunk up, sung up and bribed up”, this can be seen as an indictment of pre-union arrangements and as enhancing at least the possible advantages of radical change.

In both cases, the union debates were marked by pragmatism rather than vision; what was on offer was a deal rather than an ideal and the selling of it by government had to do with management and brokerage rather than the invocation of principle and noble causes. But against this, in Ireland as well as in Scotland, the politicians were motivated by a wide range of considerations to do with their own history and religion, as well as with war, political stability and economic opportunity. In both cases, the chief authors of corruption and immorality tales – Jonah Barrington in Ireland, John Clerk of Penicuik and George Lockhart of Cornwath, in Scotland – were not fully consistent about their own actions and opinions, and not above embroidering, in order to make good stories better. In both cases, the process was less about paying parliamentarians in order to get them to change their vote than about rewarding supporters, breaking the opposition, persuading the doubtful and thus making up the numbers. The principal currency was pensions, place, promotions and titles of nobility rather than cash; Dundas called this “[management by] the proper distribution of loaves and fishes”.

In both cases also, what struck contemporaries was how quickly the balance shifted at the critical time, how rapid was the “metamorphosis of patriots into lickspittles”. In Ireland, for example, the government was defeated in January 1799, when a motion to delete a reference to union in a loyal address was carried by 111 votes to 106; by January 1800, union was endorsed by 138 to ninety-six, and the formal vote passed the Irish House of Commons the following month by almost the same margin, 158 to 115. The rapidity of the change explains the subsequent stress on venality but other factors were also operative. In both countries, the concept of union was not novel; it had been discussed, on and off, for many decades. Both sets of “patriots” had serious divisions within their ranks; and neither Ponsonby in Ireland nor Hamilton in Scotland was charismatic or competent. And prior to 1707 and 1801, respectively, in the absence of immediate external factors, the coercive persuasion of London had a good track record in Edinburgh and Dublin; settled government policy, seriously pursued, had been successful more often than not.

Jackson deals briefly with the undeclared and illegal spending from the secret service funds discovered by David Wilkinson in the mid-1990s in papers then newly released by the Public Records Office in Kew. These showed spending of £32,500, from monies controlled by John King, who reported to Pitt’s spymaster, William Wickham, undersecretary at the Home Office, and later chief secretary for Ireland. This was certainly illegal, as the maximum permitted each year from this source was capped at £5,000 by an Act of 1782; and “bibulous entertainment, propaganda and subventions” could hardly be construed as a designated use. The net result of these and other irregularities was meagre enough. Perhaps twelve Irish MPs clearly changed position; the big turnover was in borough seats bought for unionists, of which a total of sixty-six changed hands. Jackson’s rather generous judgement is that this was unseemly but not illegal, as such seats in Ireland were considered a form of property and were bought and sold openly.

One of the best passages in Jackson’s study is the final section of Chapter 3, entitled “Shared Freedom and its Implications”. In it, he gives a concise account of the reasoning which led Pitt and Dundas to come out in favour of union in 1798, pointing out that the essential features of government in Ireland in the 1780s and 1790s were that Britain could not control the Irish parliament and that the parliament could not control Ireland. The achievement of so-called legislative independence in 1782-3 did not overturn the influence of London; it simply made its tasks more difficult and expensive. As the problems mounted, ministerial support in England for union grew. The regency crisis of 1788-89, when Ireland showed itself more in favour of the Whiggish prince of Wales than was Britain, moved ministers in the same direction. After 1793, the default position of the government was repression; in consequence, constitutional radicalism and reformism were driven underground; thereafter, repression and revolutionary reformism grew together. Thus, while the British government felt that the constitution needed reform to include Catholics within the political system, its closest allies in Ireland, like much of Britain, would not accept reform, and the reformers in Ireland would not accept the British government. These were the knots that Pitt and his lieutenants sought to cut through with the surgical steel of union.

Ireland had a complex relationship with the crown forces. Like the Scots, the Irish had been on the receiving end of English conquest and were embittered by British military might. But if they were victims of it, they were also complicit in, British military ascendancy. Catholics served in the British armies overseas from the 1750s, and at home from 1793. Up to 20 per cent of the male population of Ireland may have served in the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars between 1793 and 1815. Incidentally, can it possibly be true that in 1821 Ireland had over 40 per cent of its workforce engaged in trades, manufacturing or handicrafts? (The source quoted is Cormac Ó Gráda’s Ireland: A New Economic History 1780-1939.)

Ireland was particularly badly treated in respect of the number of MPs and peers it was allowed to send to Westminster. On the basis of population, it should have had at least double the hundred MPs and thirty-two peers it was awarded. Scotland had had a similar complaint after 1707 because the basis for their numbers was taxable capacity rather than population numbers. The Irish imbalance was corrected in the worst possible way by the Famine.

I was struck and impressed by Jackson’s balanced and sympathetic treatment of Gladstone, and especially of his Home Rule endeavours. While he allows himself some ironical asides, he essentially sees Gladstone as representing a significant British tradition of pragmatic constitutional thinking, prepared to jettison customary forms of union in order to safeguard a large measure of its substance. He also judges the Gladstonian vision of the union as still relevant, insofar as it influenced Tony Blair’s attitude to devolution and to the acceptability of “variable geometry” solutions for maintaining the United Kingdom. He also writes convincingly regarding post-Famine, mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and the drift of the political elites towards conservatism. Perhaps he might have made more of the growth of what might be called “torpor conservatism”, epitomised for George Moore by the Kildare Street Club, and neatly filleted by him as “the home of the rent party in Ireland [and] all that is respectable, those who are gifted with an oyster-like capacity for understanding this one thing, that they should continue to grow fat in the bed in which they were born”.

Jackson is the author of previous books on Carson, Edward Saunderson, Home Rule and the Ulster Unionist Party. This is a worthy addition to that canon. Initially I found his style to be rather dry but I have changed my opinion and now look forward to enjoying his essay (in Niall Ferguson's book on virtual, alternative and counterfactual history) entitled “What if Home Rule had been enacted in 1912?”

Relations between Ireland and Scotland are now close but not without their minor tensions. Prior to the death of the Celtic Tiger, some Scots nationalists were inclined to envy Irish independence and prosperity; in Dublin in early 2008 Alex Salmond talked about similarities of aspiration and differences of tradition. Professor Jackson notes that certain potentially commemorative dates for the two unions (2001 and 2007) were passed in “embarrassed passivity”. But it is not difficult to detect a patronising air in some Irish attitudes to the Scots; “like us, only less so”, is a common enough notion. In fact, a case can be made that the Scots have generally managed their relations with their larger neighbour, equally fraught and bloody as they were at certain times, more productively and more consistently in their own interest than have the Irish, North and South.

This is not a topic Professor Jackson deals with, except by implication. He does comment, in a very careful and measured way, on the quality of unionism in the Northern Ireland remnant of the Anglo-Irish arrangement. He concludes that the “Ulsterisation” of Irish unionism was accompanied by the loss of key positive ambitions and elements; making all allowances for the difficulties it faced, the devolved Stormont regime was “culpably introspective” and, like its extreme nationalist opponents, preoccupied with unity; this unified but beleaguered unionism was politically, culturally and intellectually diminished, to the extent of depending on a kind of ethnic and sectarian autism. Its handling of the challenges posed by the large Catholic and nationalist minority in the province was a “comprehensive failure”. But while Northern Ireland unionism remained cramped and confined by its plantation creed and its sectarian past, the parallel movement in Scotland, with some difficulties and regressions, evolved away from its confessional past towards a broadly shared sense of Scottish patriotism.

In the late 1980s, I once heard Brian Lenihan snr comment that the best political solution to the problems of these islands (including, in the immediate context, those of Northern Ireland) would have been a confederal or federative union of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This had been advocated in the late seventeenth century by Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, in order to maintain Scotland as, in his words, “a free and independent kingdom, delivering up that which all the world has been fighting for since the days of Nimrod, to wit, a power to manage their own affairs, without the assistance and counsel of any other”. In today’s world, are independence and confederation necessarily incompatible concepts?

John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as Ambassador to Cyprus, Ambassador to the Netherlands and Permanent Representative to the UN (Geneva).
27/01/2014

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